The EU and US have both announced preliminary steps against Russia over the situation in Crimea. Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU economic sanctions could follow within days unless Russia changes tack.
The European Union announced that it would suspend talks with Russia on visa matters after a hastily-convened leaders' summit to address the Crimean crisis on Thursday afternoon. The European Council statement also announced the postponement of ongoing negotiations, started in 2008, seeking a more comprehensive basis for bilateral cooperation than an existing 1994 deal.
Brussels again urged Moscow to enter into direct talks with the new government in Ukraine, which Russia has not recognized.
"Such negotiations need to start within the next few days and produce results within a limited timeframe. In the absence of such results the European Union will decide on additional measures, such as travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit," the EU's joint statement said.
Similarly, the US government on Thursday imposed visa bans on Russians and Ukrainians considered responsible for destabilizing Ukraine by Washington. US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a one-hour phone call late Thursday, during which Obama urged Putin to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
However, the Russian president maintained his position that he could not ignore calls for protection from the people in Ukraine's southeastern region after the interim government in Kyiv had imposed "absolutely illegitimate decisions on [Crimea]," according to a statement from the Kremlin. Putin also said that he hoped US-Russia relations would not become "a victim of disagreement."
Merkel rejects Crimea referendum
The pro-Russian regional parliament in Crimea on Thursday voted to join the Russian Federation and announced a referendum within the peninsula for its roughly 2 million inhabitants.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Brussels that this proposed vote was "a referendum based on a foundation that does not even exist." Germany was among the EU members in Brussels calling for more mediation with Russia and a comparatively small first set of sanctioning measures.
"We want to do all we can to move the diplomatic process forward," Merkel said, before warning that should this prove unsuccessful, "then this will result in a far-reaching change to our relations with Russia, which could also include a broad palette of economic measures."
Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, attended the Brussels summit, before moving on for a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen later on Thursday. Yatsenyuk called Crimea's referendum plans "illegitimate" and told EU leaders he and his colleagues in Kyiv still hoped for a peaceful solution, but warned that Ukraine's government and military "are ready to protect our country."
The European leaders also approved a proposal, put forward prior to the summit, to provide Yatsenyuk's interim government with around 11 billion euros ($15.1 billion) in emergency loans.
Security Council convenes once more
For the fourth time in a week, the United Nations Security Council held closed-door talks on the Crimea - in a meeting called by the UK. US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power also described the planned referendum in Crimea as "illegal."
UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed the Council by video from Kyiv, commenting critically on the intimidation that on Wednesday prompted UN envoy Robert Serry to leave Crimea. Serry has since returned to Kyiv, where he briefed Eliasson, but said on Thursday that he did not expect to return to Crimea in the near future.
Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that Moscow was only an "observer" in Thursday's meeting, but rejected claims that the gunmen who had threatened Serry were Russian. The UN in its official statement had described them only as "armed men with no insignias."
Moscow disputes allegations from Ukraine, the US and others that the armed men who have broadly seized control in Crimea are Russian soldiers without insignias. As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia can veto UN statements or resolutions. UK ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said on Thursday that the Council was unlikely to pass any resolution in the coming days, but that it would reconvene soon
Like President Barack Obama in a televised address earlier on Thursday, Washington's ambassador at the UN, Samantha Power, called for the deployment of international monitors in Crimea as soon as possible.
"We call on Russia to allow UN and OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] monitors … into all of Ukraine, including Crimea, to ensure the rights of all Ukrainians are respected, including ethnic Russians," Power said in New York.
msh/lw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)